Serious Sweet

Serious sweetOne of the most frustrating things about this book by A.L. Kennedy is how close it came to being precisely my thing and how far it ultimately fell short. A lot of the books on the Booker long list this year have been books that I can acknowledge as being well crafted while not really suiting my tastes. I wouldn’t object to seeing those books on the shortlist, even though I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for them. They just didn’t speak to me. Serious Sweet often did, loudly and beautifully. But at more than 500 pages, it’s just too much. It’s working too hard to be a profound big book, screaming look at my brilliance! But the lovely, moving story at its core is enough. All that folderal is a distraction.

The novel follows two people, Meg and Jon, through a day that both expect to be special, but they have to get through their weekday routine first. Jon has to go to his government job, and Meg has a medical appointment followed by a shift at the animal shelter where she works part time. At first, their days don’t appear connected, but the link between them gradually becomes clear, and the stakes go up.

As Jon and Meg go through the day, we read all their stray thoughts about what they see, what they hope, what aggravates them. We get to know them both well. Meg is a bit of a grouch, but she’s vulnerable (and not grouchy to hide her vulnerability—she hides the grouchiness, too). She keeps to herself, recovering from a traumatic and difficult past, but hoping that this day will bring a new life. Meg’s inner monologue often made me laugh, as in this stray thought about an annoying but harmless co-worker:

If I pray for her, this will allegedly remove the burden of picturing her being run over by a van. Or the effort of pushing her under the van. But if I do pray for her, I’d only be able to ask God, or the angels, or whoever’s supposed to be listening, to grant that Laura ends up—who cares how—underneath a fucking van.

This is uncharitable. And counterproductive, surely.

I liked Meg. I liked that she tries and fails and tries again. I like that she wants. I liked that this was a book that allowed a 40-something single woman to be like this, frail and thorny and tough, all at the same time.

Jon was harder to warm up to. His story involves what felt to me like a ridiculous plot involving sharing government secrets. It would have been enough to have him just be a harried government worker, with too many crises to manage. I also felt that Kennedy was trying too hard to make him a “good and sensitive man.” (I confess that I was under the misapprehension that A.L. Kennedy was a man, which might have affected my reading.) He’s divorced, but he still waters his ex’s plants, and he wants badly to give love to someone who needs it. He seemed not quite real to me, and his inner voice never grabbed me.

Interspersed with the story of Meg and Jon’s day are little vignettes of various people around London. There’s a woman who falls down an escalator, a middle-aged autistic woman who missed her train, an older couple embracing, a young man playing music. They’re moments of connection, often involving strangers giving help to strangers. Many of these are lovely, but they aren’t needed and they don’t really add much. They make the book feel like it’s making an effort at profundity, when Jon and Meg’s story is enough.

If the vignettes, many of the inner monologues, and some of the extra plot points were dropped from this book, I could have loved it. But as it is, I often ended up skimming when a character’s thoughts went on and on and on. I understand that Kennedy might have been attempting something along the lines of Ulysses, but I’ve never been inclined to read Ulysses because I suspect my reaction would be the same. So maybe this approach has brilliance that doesn’t speak to me. But if the parts that didn’t speak to me were stripped away, this book would have been brilliant in a different way. I would have wanted to give it all the prizes.

Posted in Fiction | 7 Comments

The Many

The ManyEthan is a fisherman in a small coastal village, grieving the death of Perran, a young man who helped him in his work. Timothy is a Londoner who has just bought Perran’s abandoned house, planning to fix it up and make it a quiet home for him and his wife. Their two stories intertwine in this short and puzzling novel by Wyl Menmuir.

Timothy’s presence in Perran’s house unsettles everyone, including Timothy himself. Timothy and Ethan are curious about each other, but Timothy’s presence feels like an invasion. Timothy at first keeps to himself, and when he finally tries to reach out to the villagers, he makes little headway. He doesn’t understand their suspicion of him or their unwillingness to talk about Perran.

That’s not the only strange thing going on. The village is under what seems like a quarantine. The fisherman cannot go past a certain point, and any fish they catch are immediately bought up by some mysterious businesspeople, including a sinister woman in grey. The fisherman are warned to hand over every single fish. What’s more, their catches appear deformed, a fact that no one seems inclined to follow up on.

As you can see, The Many is full of mysteries, most of which are never quite resolved. It’s not really a book about solving mysteries but about living in them. And the real mysteries are not about deformed sea life or unexplained floods. The mystery is about life and how it ends. The oddities Timothy finds are not the material of a thriller but representations of something else.

The novel is rich in imagery, but it’s not clear which images are meaningful and which just contribute to the atmosphere of unease and strangeness. The fact that Ethan’s boat is called Great Hope is surely significant, but what about the contaminated water and the jellyfish? It’s like reading a dream. There’s a story, but it drifts. And maybe it isn’t even the point.

I am glad, however, that there is a story. Menmuir doesn’t let go of plot entirely until the final chapters, drawing readers in with the mystery but leaving us with something else.

Now with two great books in a row from the Booker longlist, I’m hoping my Booker reading has turned around.

Posted in Fiction | 10 Comments

Boy, Snow, Bird

boy snow birdThere are lots of authors who like to turn to fairy tales and folklore for their inspiration, but none of them (that I know of, anyway) are quite like Helen Oyeyemi. In White is for Witching, in Icarus Girl, in Mr. Fox, she takes French folklore and Yoruba tales and Greek and Cuban mythology and she mixes in some really deep, weird questions about culture and ethnicity and identity and being the Other, and she comes out with what I might call some of the most interesting horror stories I’ve ever read. The writer she seems most kin to is Shirley Jackson: they both have that sense of something being deeply off about who people are below the surface and what is really going on. But Oyeyemi does it in a multiculturally uncanny context Jackson only brushed in one or two of her stories. And she keeps getting better, at least structurally speaking.

Set in the 1950s, Boy, Snow, Bird opens on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, with a young white woman named Boy Novak running away from her gruesomely abusive rat-catcher father. She takes a bus at random to the end of the line, to Flax Hill, Massachusetts, and there she meets a jewelry maker and widower, Arturo Whitman, with a beautiful daughter named Snow, “a medieval swan maiden, only with the darkest hair and the pinkest lips, every shade at its utmost.” Boy marries Arturo, despite her misgivings about becoming an evil stepmother, and all seems well until their own daughter, Bird, is born, and the nurse tells Boy, “That little girl is a Negro.” After a brief, intense struggle with the matriarch of the family, the truth comes out: the Whitmans are light-skinned African-Americans passing for white. Arturo’s first wife’s family was the same, and when Snow was born light-skinned, she had praise and privilege heaped on her that Boy knows Bird will never have: When whites look at her,” she writes of Snow, “they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl — we don’t see a colored girl standing there. The joke’s on us.” Assailed by jealousy that her own daughter will never have the love and privilege Snow has, she sends Snow to live with her Aunt Clara, who in her turn was also sent away as a child for “being dark.”

The second part of the book is narrated by thirteen-year-old Bird, who finds a cache of letters Snow wrote to her. The sisters reach out to each other, and more secrets are uncovered. The final section of the book returns the narrative voice to Boy — and I find it interesting that the beautiful Snow never has a chance to speak to us herself.

This novel is very complex, and it plays not only with the obvious Snow White theme (vanity, beauty, mirrors, motherhood) but with a lot of other fairy-tale motifs that put little girls either in danger or in and out of mirrors or both (Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland, and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” are just three.) There are trolls and Anansi stories and ghostly presences. These manifestations of the uncanny, though, are anchored by the extremely real: Emmett Till, Ebony magazine, the Black Panthers.

Mirrors are a particularly complicated trope. Boy begins the entire novel this way:

Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton.

Boy is presented as vain, always looking for her own reflection, in picture frames, in a bronze pitcher, in the back of a spoon. But note the commonality: all those reflections are distorted — convex, concave. She doesn’t know what she really looks like, only the way people react to her.

Snow and Bird have the opposite experience with mirrors: they aren’t there at all. “Sometimes mirrors can’t find me,” says Bird.  “I’ll go into a room with a mirror in it and look around, and I’m not there.  Not all the time, not even most of the time, but often enough.” Her explanation is that either she must not be human or that someone must have a grudge against her — “wishing and willing me out of sight.” Snow has the same experience, but a different explanation. “My reflection can’t be counted on, she’s not always there,” Snow writes.  “But I am, so maybe she’s not really me.” This, of course, is about being seen: how is vanity possible if you’re invisible to cultural standards of beauty? How can you see yourself in the mirror if society’s mirror won’t reflect you? This obliquely reflects Snow and Bird’s grandmother’s experience of living in segregated Jim Crow society:

All the high-class places we were allowed to go to, they were imitations of the places we were kept out of — not mawkish copies, most of it was done with perfect taste, but sitting at the bar or at the candlelit table you’d try to imagine what dinnertime remarks the real people were making… yes, the real people at the restaurant two blocks away, the white folks we were shadows of, and you’d try to talk about whatever you imagined they were talking about, and your food turned to sawdust in your mouth.

Who’s the fairest of them all?

This excellent novel — the guts and violence of fairy tales, used in service of the reality of the politics of race and identity — is slightly marred at the end when Oyeyemi tries to parallel this experience with gender, and it doesn’t work. However, the rest of the novel is in such an original voice and style, and is so interesting to read, that this doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it might in a book that wasn’t so slippery and so true. So much contemporary literary fiction is so samey, and this is not that. This is something else. I really recommend you read it and find out what.

Posted in Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments

The North Water

The North WaterFinally! Finally! A book on this year’s Booker longlist that I’m excited about. I liked Work Like Any Other just fine, but none of the others I’ve read did much for me. I’m hoping this is a turnaround point.

I have a weakness for cold-weather disasters, and I’m a fan of Patrick O’Brian, and, to be perfectly honest, I’ve been craving plot, so Ian McGuire’s novel about a 19th-century whaling expedition gone wrong was just right. I groaned and gasped all the way through this book.

The main character of The North Water is a surgeon named Patrick Sumner. He has some dark secrets from his time with the army in Delhi, and serving on the Volunteer‘s journey to the Arctic is a chance to escape his memories and earn a little money. But the journey is ill-fated from the start, thanks to an insurance scheme cooked up by the ship’s owner and the presence of the monstrous Henry Drax.

If you’re looking for a nautical adventure along the lines of O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books, you’re better off looking elsewhere. McGuire offers none of O’Brian’s light touch. All of the many misfortunes of the Volunteer are described in excruciating detail. No drop of blood or bodily fluid is left unmentioned. This type of explicitness sometimes annoys me in proto-Victorian novels, but it works here. This is a brutal world, and not just in comparison to our own. It’s brutal for its time.

As much as I enjoyed this, I don’t have a lot to say about it. It’s heavy on plot, well-paced, and well-written. The focus is on the action, and the action is focused on survival. There are few moments of introspection, although I was struck by a moment late in the book when the men of the Volunteer, having come face-to-face with an unanticipated act of abominable evil, are described as “unable to parse the world implied by such events.” That’s a remarkably good description of what facing down evil can feel like. How can one parse such a world?

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 13 Comments

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift

pursuit of aliceThis is the story of an unbalanced romance. It is the story of a fudge salesman (and maybe a con man — we’re not sure) doggedly pursuing a surgeon, for no reason she (or we, at first) can see. When Ray Russo meets Alice Thrift, she is an isolated intern with no social life:

How had I gotten so appallingly ineffective with actual people? I thought I had a nice way about me — I was particularly adept at delivering good-news bulletins to relatives in the waiting room, but even that drew criticism. Once in a while, a next of kin complained that the frown on my face as I walked into the lounge scared him or her to death. But wasn’t it mere concentration? It was never enough — my excellent knowledge of anatomy, my openings and closings, my long hours. What people want, I swear, is a doctor with the disposition of a Montessori teacher.

Alice — no Montessori teacher she — has a habit of blurting out uncomfortable truths and preferring a night’s sleep or an evening’s study to any socializing that might be going on. Her roommate, Leo Frawley, the world’s most popular pediatric nurse, takes Alice under his wing. This doesn’t mean he wants to change her, he just reaches out to her as a friend, and after a while, their mutual incomprehension wears off in some extremely charming ways.

Ray, a recent widower, continues his heavy courtship of Alice in every imaginable way: eeling his way into dates, insisting on driving her to her grandmother’s funeral (and bringing four pounds of fudge for the reception), macking his way up to her new apartment, fainting in the bath, and requiring medical attention. Alice is bewildered by this plan of attack, and seesaws between being flattered and annoyed. When she makes friends with another intern, the bold and sarcastic Sylvie, she has another perspective — but also more distractions, since Sylvie’s love life is on High Farce Mode. And in the mean time, Leo’s got a new girlfriend — a baby-hungry midwife who doesn’t seem to like Alice at all. Where is the happily ever after going to come from?

This is the second novel I’ve read by Elinor Lipman, and it’s just delightful: light, light, light as a meringue, light as raspberry mousse. There’s no heartbreak here, nothing high-stakes. When someone is acting like a jerk, everyone has enough common sense to see that person acting like a jerk. People are capable of change. The prose is witty and sly and funny on every page, without being manic. This author is just so enjoyable, and well worth the couple of hours it takes to read one of her novels.

Posted in Fiction | 9 Comments

The Home and the World

home and the worldThis 1916 novel, originally written in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore, is a terrific example of what happens when individual lives and the life of a nation meet. Sometimes books like this can be lumpen allegories, where the author keeps hitting you over the head with a bottle of Think Like Me Sauce. In The Home and the World, however, we have three people tangled together in ideas and ideology, love and desire, tradition and modernity, arrogance and need, idealism and realism, freedom and tyranny. There is Nikhil, the zamindar who adores his wife and wants her greater freedom and engagement with the world. There is Bimala, the wife who almost worships her husband and seems content with her traditional role — until she meets Sandip, the greedy, manipulative nationalist who flatters her by making her into his muse. These characters leap off the page, full of anguish or happiness or wisdom. At the same time, we have India at the beginning of the 20th century. The National Independence Movement is in full swing, and Swadeshi (a movement that tried to rid India of foreign goods and influence) is rocking the local economy with its fervor. When these people clash with the huge swell of events, who can predict what will happen?

As the book opens, Bimala is deeply in love with Nikhil. She “takes the dust of his feet” while he sleeps, wanting to keep her deep reverence to herself, because a woman “must worship in order to love.” Nikhil, however, doesn’t want her worship (or at least he thinks he doesn’t.) His ideal is a woman who can step out of the women’s quarters and engage with the outside world, a woman who is free even from freely-chosen governance. When Bimala goes to a political event to please Nikhil, she hears Sandip speak and feels her world shaken. She is immediately convinced of the vital importance of Swadeshi, and — more vitally — of her own centrality to the movement, as the muse and goddess of Bengal, the embodiment of Bengali womanhood. She begins changing into a freer and more modern woman, flattered and encouraged at every step by the virile and smooth-spoken Sandip. Nikhil must struggle with his feelings: in theory, he wants her (and everyone) to be perfectly free, but does he want this at the cost of his marriage?

So Bimala’s choice isn’t just between two men. It’s between two ways of life: being completely free and being governed — a life in which power goes to the person who can snatch it. Sandip sees this power-hungry life as the natural way of things, and envisions himself as the top of the heap and Bimala as the goddess who will motivate him. Nikhil’s rational, gentle way of helping people at his own expense will never make progress — or so he thinks.

This storyline, full of drama and emotion, both plays itself out against and reflects the different ideas about nationalism happening at the moment in India. Nikhil represents a humanistic freedom, that puts people above nation, caste, gender, and race. He wants the good of individuals more than a nominal freedom that might hurt more than it would help. Sandip, on the other hand, is brash, seeking power for its own sake, putting on the mask of nationalism so he can gain the upper hand over individuals and country alike. Bimala, at first completely taken in by Sandip’s rhetoric and carried away by the Swadeshi movement, later begins to see through his tactics. The goddess of Bengal must also dwell in the home, or the home means nothing. This is brought out in particular in the question of Bimala’s jewelry: traditionally, an Indian woman’s jewelry is extremely sentimental, the way I might feel about my engagement or wedding ring. Sandip asks her to sell it to get money for “the cause,” a deeply insensitive and unchivalric gesture meant to cement his power over her. She does it — but in fact it breaks his power, because she sees through his petty, grasping effort to break her home.

The three main characters take turns writing their stories (or, more accurately, “autobiographies”) as the story unfolds. This means that we sometimes see the same event from two or even three different perspectives as the story gains momentum. In this way, the book makes us consider: what is truth? There aren’t any staged answers here; the reader has to come to her own conclusions. The prose — as translated from Bengali — is elaborate and a bit formal, but I didn’t find it stilted or hard to read. It struck me as being of its time, and indeed quite beautiful. I wish I could read Bengali.

I thought this book was fascinating and compelling, and still relevant today with the fanatic nationalism that affects so many countries, including my own. I hope you read it if you haven’t already. If you have — what did you think?

 

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 5 Comments

The Sellout

The SelloutSatire is hard. It’s hard to write and hard to read. And I’ll admit straight off that I’m not good at reading it. If the point of the jokes are too obvious, I get annoyed. If it’s too subtle, I miss it. And if there’s not much beyond jokes, I get frustrated and bored. So I’m not the ideal reader for Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I tried to read it earlier this year and got bored with it and didn’t finish. (And, as I’ve mentioned before, the library copy I read was mildewed and gave me a headache.) But, in the interests of the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel, I gave it another try. I finished this time, so that’s a plus, but I’m still not this book’s ideal reader.

The book is chock-a-block with gags and one-liners, usually involving race. It’s clear from the start that we’re not meant to take the jokes seriously, as the main character Bonbon declares:

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snick into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.

Bonbon Me has been summoned to the Supreme Court because he has been found in violation of the Constitution. His crime? Owning a slave and promoting segregation. It’s not as simple as all that, of course. The slave, a man named Hominy and the last surviving member of the Little Rascals, asked to be enslaved. And Bonbon’s efforts at segregation brought improvements to the black and brown citizens of his neighborhood.

As I’ve already noted, I’m not the best audience for satire. But, as I read this, I struggle to understand who is. It’s meant, I think, to be confronting, but until the last few chapters, I found it too over-the-top to ever actually feel confronted. Toward the end, some complexity regarding what the best answers are for America’s race problems is introduced, and I appreciated that. There’s also some interesting commentary around stereotypes and how people find comfort in them, including those being stereotyped.

In the end, I felt like this book was too interested in being outrageous to ever win me over. The characters and plot are vehicles for transgressive jokes and commentary. They never turn into living, breathing people experiencing a high-stakes situation. It’s just very much not my kind of book.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 15 Comments

The Brutal Telling

brutal tellingThis is the fifth in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series of crime novels, most of which take place in the small, secluded Quebecois village of Three Pines. I read the fourth novel, A Rule Against Murder, just a few months ago, and I wasn’t totally happy with it — something, I thought, to do with its taking place outside of the village, and without the cast of familiar characters Penny has taken so much trouble to develop. Fortunately, this novel is right back on track. Not only does it take place back in the beloved village, it is right back in the heart of the villagers themselves — the sometimes unnerving, self-deluded, terrified TELL-TALE HEART of the villagers.

(Heh.)

The book opens with a shock: the body of an elderly man has been found at Olivier’s Bistro, murdered but not murdered on the premises. Who is he? Who murdered him? Who moved the body, and from where? The police (headed up by Gamache, of course) dive into their usual methods, tracing not just forensic evidence but emotional evidence. Gamache’s theory is that murder is sort of like the bursting of a psychic boil: somewhere, somehow, a nasty emotion has been left to fester, and this is the way it has ultimately manifested itself. Suspicion flits from one place to another: is it one of the people of the village (perhaps Olivier himself)? Is it the newcomers, Marc and Dominique Gilbert, whose plans for an elaborate retreat and spa are disrupting Three Pines? Is it Roar Parras, a longtime Czech resident whose past is shrouded in mystery? Or is it some evil that the victim brought upon himself? When the police discover a cabin in the woods apparently belonging to the dead man, Gamache and his team are shocked to discover the remote building is full of priceless antiquities, from first edition books to European treasures thought to have disappeared during WWII to startling carvings made by the dead man himself. The harsh light that this trove sheds on the murder also casts an unpleasant light on some important people in Three Pines — people we’ve gotten to know well over several books. The past catches up with the present here, and chaos comes with it.

I know that some of the appeal of this series to some readers is that Three Pines is so cozy, full of places and people where you’d like to spend time, maybe retire. Those readers may not have enjoyed this book as much, feeling that Penny had turned on her characters. But I enjoyed this entry in the series maybe most of all so far. The series can be a little too cozy for me at times, and The Brutal Telling reassured me that Three Pines isn’t a Stepford village. Penny can have a tendency to throw around references to art and poetry without making any real connections, but this book was more solid, and justified its elaborate construction. While it still didn’t have the deep sense of menace or consequence that, say, a Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith novel will give you, I appreciated what it did have: a genuine struggle with motivation, an exploration of lies and secrets, and some very serious foreshadowing for the next book — to which I’m very much looking forward.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 4 Comments

How to be both

how to be bothThis lovely, dual-narrative novel by Ali Smith twines around itself like a double helix (and, in case you didn’t notice it, part of the novel takes place in Cambridge, England, where “DNA history had been made.”) In the first part of the book, a talkative 15th-century ghost named Francescho is dragged through space and time (“Ho this is a mighty twisting thing fast as a fish being pulled by its mouth on a hook if a fish could be fished through a 6-foot wall made of bricks”) to observe a grieving adolescent in our world, a kind of purgatorium Francescho both does and doesn’t understand. (Both.)

An ambitious painter, Francescho was hired, centuries ago, to decorate the Schifanoia palace: meant to banish boredom. The dazzling narrative flickers through flashbacks and experiences that would banish anyone’s boredom: a visit to prostitutes in which the outcome is not what anyone expected; run-ins with a tight-fisted patron over payment; a sharp observant eye on the world (a blackbird’s beak is a “good Naples yellow.”) Smith has put a tight twist in the helix on all these proceedings, however: it’s not until dozens of pages in that we discover that the garrulous painter is a woman disguised as a man, her chest tightly bound with linen, and trained by her bricklayer father to succeed in a man’s world. (How to be both.) We see Francescho observe our world, too: the adolescent holds up a “holy votive tablet” that we understand to be an iPad, on which she watches “frieze after frieze of carnal pleasure-house love enacted before our eyes.” Hmmm. We know what that is, too. Being both inside and outside is just another example of Smith’s light-handed play.

The second half of the narrative pulls us, gasping, into the year 2013. Here the adolescent George has recently lost her mother, at 50, to a senseless accident: an allergic reaction to a common antibiotic. Her mother was an influential economist with leftist views. She also designed “subverts” (a play on “adverts”) that popped up on the Internet: images that combined art and politics and made you think about both. George is trying to cope with her grief, partly through her fierce interest in an artist her mother was deeply drawn to before her death. Guess who? Francesco del Cossa, a painter whose biography we know little about, who painted the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia. Surprise!

I think you’d have to read this book twice, or anyway one and a half times, to get all the references that fly back and forth and back again between the two halves of this book. There are walls and mythic beasts and hands and eyes growing from flower stems, to name just a few. Smith explores how to be both: not just both male and female, but how to laugh while grieving, how to know who you are and escape that identity, how the past breathes through the present and is still to some extent alive. The book feels light, and the prose is crisp and often witty, but it’s — as Francescho says about her art — “good at the real and the true and the beautiful.”

Posted in Fiction | 9 Comments

Eileen

EileenI first attempted to read this novel by Ottessa Moshfegh several months ago and gave up in boredom after about 60 pages. I had been led to expect a thriller, something in the vein of Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell. Although I can see where that idea came from, most of Eileen is a straightforward character study of a not very pleasant person. The story I expected doesn’t turn up until the last few chapters.

When this turned up on the Man Booker longlist, I knew I needed to give it another try so I could better participate in the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Jury deliberations. I’m happy to say that going into it expecting a slow-moving character study helped me this time, and I liked it a lot more. It’s still not a favorite, though, and I’d not be sorry to see better books on the shortlist. (This is a theme for my Booker reading this year.)

Now in her 70s, Eileen narrates a pivotal week from her early 20s, the week she calls “my last days as that angry little Eileen.” Angry little Eileen lived alone with her alcoholic father, worked in a prison for juvenile boys, had no friends to speak of, and obsessed over one of the prison guards, going so far as to park at his house and watch his movements. Her home is unkempt and lonely, as is she. She takes poor care of herself, rarely eating and relying on laxatives to keep her bowels moving. (There’s a lot of talk about bowels and other bodily functions.)

Eileen is not at all likable, nor is she deliciously unlikable like the narrator of A Kind of IntimacyShe’s dull and more than a little bit gross. In a way, her frankness is refreshing, but I never found it enjoyable. It was endurable, and I was curious as to how she would break away. The fact that it’s clear she did was what kept me reading.

I don’t want to dwell much on the event that snaps her out of her situation, lest I spoil the shocks, but I’ll say that I did find the final chapters gripping. I also appreciated the way the most overtly dramatic story is put in the background as Eileen’s story of getting out is foregrounded. The big cataclysm is important in the novel because of the effect it has on Eileen, how it teaches her that she is capable of something and pushes her to get past the boundaries she’s set for herself. The ending is weirdly liberating, despite being dark, dark, dark.

Even though this was better the second time around (by which I mean it was finishable), I wonder if it would have been better as a short story. It’s possible that the many pages of characterization were necessary for the final chapters to achieve their impact. Seeing Eileen shed an identity we’d barely gotten to know might not mean much. But the development gets tedious, and it’s not hard to see what sort of person Eileen is from the first couple of chapters. A shorter version that still found a way to demonstrate what a rut she was in would probably have kept me reading the first time.

Posted in Fiction | 16 Comments